An Anthropology of Literary Culture introduces students to the anthropology of language and to the comparative study of literary cultures.

This course argues that literature and literary practice is far more consequential to the formation of social, cultural, and political order than most people realize.  In essence, literature sets out the larger geographies of civilizational and cultural practice that become the bases, over time, of the political worlds that come to seem natural in the modern period. Together, we will uncover the historical processes by which this central aspect of culture comes to seem natural.

The class will explore the discovery and geography of language families, early writing systems and the formation of literary languages, the difference between modern and pre-modern grammatical and philological knowledge, the role of language in the formation of polities throughout Asia and Europe, the rise of trans-regional cosmopolitan languages (e.g. Latin, Sanskrit, Persian) in the establishment of civilizational territories and the rise of vernacular literatures (e.g. English, Tamil, Thai) as consequential cultural and historical processes in the creation of regional and ‘national’ territories, and the role of language and literature in the formation of modern nation states and ethnic  identities.

Readings include primary texts from Asian and Middle Eastern literatures in translation, secondary work in literary criticism, history, and the anthropology of language. Rather than offering an introduction to linguistic, we focus on the poetics and politics of literary languages,.   

No prior knowledge or background in literature or anthropology is required. All readings are in English or translated into English. 

Course Outline:

1. Language, Culture, Literature: Introduction to the disciplines, key concepts and methods

2. Philology’s Modernity and Modernity’s Philologies

3. Pre-modern Philologies

4. Introducing Cosmopolitanism

5. Vernacularization, Pre-Modern and Modern

6. Cosmopolitanism and its Discontents

Major Texts:

al-Baqillani, al-I’jaz al-Qur’an, trans. G. E. von Grunebaum (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1950).

Alam, Muzaffar 2004. The Languages of Political Islam in India 1200-1800. Delhi: Permanent Black.

Amir Khusrow, Nine Spheres (1318). Translated by R. Nath and Faiyaz 'Gwaliari' under the title India as Seen By Amir Khusrau in 1318 A.D. (Historical Research Documentation Programme, Jaipur, 1981).

Pollock, Sheldon 2006. Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Abbreviated below as LGWM.

Ramanujan, A.K. 1985. Poems of Love and War. From the Eight Anthologies and Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press.

Three treatises on the I'jaz of the Qur'an: Qur'anic studies and literary criticism, trans. Issa J. Boullata (Reading, England: Garnett Publishing, 2014).



WEEK I: Introduction: An Anthropology of Literary Culture

Course overview, introduction to the two different disciplines that complement each other in the exploration of the cultures and social orders involved in literary production, brief overview of the concepts of language, poetics, and culture, and the assignment structure of the course (critical précis, short assignments, and blog posts and citation schemata). 

Key concepts: anthropology, comparative literature, language, culture, thought, cosmopolitan vs. vernacular languages, poetics, and imagination.

Seminar A: Introducing “An Anthropology of Literary Culture”

Discussion: Language, Literature, History

Exercise: Introduce the course, the professors, and students; introduce the concept of the critical précis and several citation models (Chicago, MLA) for papers; suggest that students experiment with one of them and be consistent throughout the course.

Seminar B: Poetics, Culture and the Imagination

Reading: Friedrich, Paul 1986. Chapters 2 and 3, The Language Parallax: Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 8-53.


WEEK II: Literature, Literization, and Literarization

This week we ask a question: what do we mean by literature (kavya/adab/literatura)?  What is a text?  How do texts travel?  And what can we say about different places that share the same texts? 

Key concepts: orality, literature, literization, literarization, the political

Seminar A:  Orality and Literature

Reading: Ong, Walter 1982.  ‘Introduction,’ Chapters 1 & 2, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.  London: Routledge, pp. 1-30

Lord, Alfred B. 1987.  ‘Characteristics of Orality.’  Oral Traditions 2/1 (1987): 54-72.

Discussion: Lord and Parry’s discovery of the orality in literary texts (e.g. Genesis, Iliad); Ong’s distinction between oral and written cultures.

Seminar B: Literization, literarization, cosmopolitan and vernacular

Reading: Pollock, Sheldon 2006. 'Introduction,' LGWM, pp. 1-36.

Discussion: Pollock’s notion of the Sanskrit cosmopolis and its geography cosmopolitanism and vernacularization; exploration of the geography of these processes.


WEEK III: The Ramayana’s Many Politics: Ramayana, Sitayana, Ravanesan

What are the political dimensions of literature? Why, for instance, were there objections to the teaching of A.K.Ramanujan's 'Three Hundred Ramayanas.’ How might we look at Ravana as a hero and what conditions might foster such a sympathy?

Seminar A: A.K Ramanujan and the many Ramayanas

Reading: Ramanujan, A.K. 1991. 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.'  In Paula Richman, ed. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 22-48. 


Discussion: What is the Ramayana? Is it one thing or many? How do you know a Ramayana when you see it? Why is it important in understanding the history of S. and S.E. Asia? And why did a piece of comparative literary history and criticism cause such a fuss in India?

Seminar B: Film Screening: Ravanesan (S. Mounaguru, 2009, Tamil with English Subtitles, 120 mins.)

Special Guest: S. Mounaguru, director.



WEEK IV: 'A New Deep History of the World': Modern Philology and the Discovery of Language Families

This unit will introduce modern philology and the discovery of language families; workshop with students the geography of major language families around the world; focus in on the rise and spread of Indo-European, Semitic and Sino-Tibetan.  Exercises during this unit are largely visual, involving drawing out maps and charts of language families.  Key concepts: language families, philology, grammar, Indo-European, Semitic, and Sino-Tibetan language families.

Seminar A: Modern philology: The language families, their discovery and significance.

Readings: Trautmann, Thomas 1997.  Chapter 2, ‘The Mosaic Ethnology of Asiatick Jones,’ Aryans and British India. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 28-61.

Halhed, Nathaniel Brassey 1778.  ‘Preface’ to A Grammar of the Bengal Language.  Hoogley, Bengal, pp. i-xxv.

Jones, Sir William 1786.  ‘Third Anniversary Discourse,’ Delivered 2 February, 1786. Works I, pp. 19-34

‘The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.’  Sir William Jones, ‘Third Anniversary Discourse,’ Delivered 2 February, 1786. Works I, pp. 19-34.

Exercise: Students provide a visual précis of Halhed and/or Jones’ theory of language (i.e. provide the visual representation of the language families they are discussing) and the ways that the philologists determined the relationships between these families. 

Seminar B: Workshop on the geography of language families.

In-seminar activity: maps and other visual representations of the language families and writing systems; map-drawing teams, blank map exercises.

Resources for exercises: On-line map collection, US Library of Congress:



WEEK V: Tamil Lyric and Epic Poetry and its Exegesis

Introduction to Sangam love poetry of the 1st through 3rd CE, the first Tamil grammar Tolkaapiayam, A.K. Ramanujan’s discussion of exegesis.  Key terms and concepts: Tamil, lyric vs. epic poetry, metaphor vs. metonym.

Seminar A: Poems of Love: The Tamil Sangam and its Beauty

Reading: Ramanujan, A.K. 1985. Poems of Love and War. From the Eight Anthologies and Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press. ‘Introduction’ by David Shulman, pp. ix-xii, and the Translator’s ‘Preface,’ pp. xiii-xx, and Book One, ‘Akam Poems,’ pp. 3-110.

Exercise: Close Reading and Savoring. Come to session with at least two poems that spoke to you in some way and be prepared to discuss them. Who are these people? What sort of a world must they have lived in? Are they like you or utterly alien?

Seminar B: Tolkaappiyam ethno-exegetical framework and the Tamil world

Reading: Ramanujan, A.K. 1985. ‘Afterword,’ Poems of Love and War. From the Eight Anthologies and Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 229-300.

Exercise: Close Reading and Exegesis.  Come to session prepared to lead a reading of at least two of the poems in terms of the exegetical framework outlined by the ancient Tamil grammars. What are the principles of exegesis? How are they different from the readings you made the previous session?


WEEK VI: On the Concept of Icjaz (Qur’anic inimitability)

The relation between literary criticism and exegesis of sacred texts; the political, theological, literary, and ethical stakes in the notion of icjaz; icjaz and the Abbasid state; icjaz and Islamic law; the place of poetry in Islamic conceptions of prophetic knowledge; imitations of the Qur’an in Arabic poetry

Seminar A: Introducing Icjaz

Reading: al-Baqillani, A Tenth-Century Document of Arabic Literary Theory and Criticism: al-I’jaz al-Qur’an, trans. G. E. von Grunebaum (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1950) pp. 1-83; review ‘Synoptic Table of Figures of Speech’ and ‘Additional Remarks,’ pp. 116-19, at your leisure.

Exercise: compare al-Baqillani’s treatment of pre-Islamic poetry as compared to muhdathun (modern) poets. Can you discern any differences? On what basis does al-Baqillani consider the Qur’an to be superior to Arabic poetry? Are you persuaded by his arguments? What is at stake in comparing poetry to the Qur’an?

Seminar B (02-21): Arabic poetic and rhetorical theory

Reading: al-Baqillani cont’d (pp. 83-115); review ‘Synoptic Table of Figures of Speech’ and ‘Additional Remarks,’ pp. 116-19, at your leisure.

Exercise: Close reading of al-Baqillani; students will spend 15 minutes writing formative evaluations of the course. 


WEEK VII:  Conceiving Arabic Rhetoric

The consolidation of Arabic as a literary language; the relation between poetic analysis and Qur'ānic hermeneutics (tafsīr); the unique power of Arabic to effect political change; poetry, the Qur’ān, and the state; literary bilingualism.

Seminar A: The Quran and Literary Theory 

Reading: al-Rummani (d. 996), “The Nuances of Qur'ānic Inimitability” in Three treatises on the I'jaz of the Qur'an: Qur'anic studies and literary criticism, trans. translated by Issa J. Boullata (Reading, England: Garnett Publishing, 2014).

Exercise: Close comparison between pp. 75-77 of Pollock, Languages of the Gods, and al-Rummani in class. What convergences do you see between Sanskrit and Arabic conceptions of the literary on the basis of these two texts (you may wish to factor in al-Baqillani as well)? Discussion and comparison of different tropes defined and discussed by al-Rummani (especially simile [tashbīh] and metaphor [isticara]. Comparison of al-Rummani and al-Baqillani—can you discern influences of the former on the latter?

Seminar B: Later Arabophone Concepts of the Imagination: From Icjaz to Rhetoric (balāgha)

Reading: Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 1078). “The Secrets of Eloquence [Asrar al-Balagha]”

in Takhyil: The Imaginary In Classical Arabic Poetics, eds. Geert Jan van Gelder & Marle

Hammond (London: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2009), 29-69.

Exercise: Compare al-Jurjani’s poetics to those articulated by al-Baqillani and al-Rummani. Does al-Jurjani appear to be preoccupied by the same themes? Does he reach the same conclusions? Can you discern traces of icjaz in his thinking about balagha? Please be prepared to refer back to al-Baqillani and al-Rummani when we discuss al-Jurjani. Concluding comparisons between Arabic literary theory (as we know it from al-Jurjani, al-Baqillani, and al-Rummani) and Sanskrit literary theory (as we know it from Pollock).


Mid-Semester Break!  Yenjay!



WEEK VIII: Cosmopolitan Languages in South and Southeast Asia with a European counterexample

A more systematic inquiry into the concept of cosmopolitanism through an introduction to the formation of the Sanskrit cosmopolis on the one hand and European cosmopolitanism in Latinitas on the other.  Comparative literature writ large, this section deals with the spread of literature and the formation of large-scale civilizational geography.

Seminar A: The Sanskrit Cosmopolis. Literary circulation and political formations in S. and SE Asia and Europe.

Reading: LWGM 'The Language of the Gods enters the World,' (pp. 39-89); 'Political Formations and Cultural Ethos' and 'A European Countercosmopolis,' (pp. 223-80).

Exercise: Read Pollock alongside maps and timelines of the processes he outlines in these chapters.



Seminar B: A Case Study of Vernacularization: Bengali. Overview of Bengali literary history and modern social imagination.

Reading: Kaviraj, Sudipta 2003.  'Two Histories of Literary Bengali.'  In Pollock, Sheldon, ed. Literary Cultures in History (University of California Press), pp. 503-66.

Exercise: Bengali literary history provides a contrast between early notions of language and modern philology; the transformation of the time-scapes that are informed by different ways of thinking about language, the emergence of language as a basis of ethnolinguistic identity. What does Bengali literary history tell us about the relationship between cosmopolitan and vernacular languages?

Assignment: (3-5 pages). Close reading of the Tamil and Arabic texts. On the basis of the critical terms to which you have been introduced from South Asian and Islamic rhetorical traditions, consider how one or more poems or other materials included in our readings would have been read and understood by a premodern reader. Compare this to your own encounter with the text. Maps and charts of different poetic devices are recommended.


WEEK IX: Telugu: Vernacular Revolutions and their Consequences

Outline two different vernacular revolutions in the Telugu speaking lands of south India, one pre-modern the other modern and associated with European colonialism.  Considers the interaction between pre-modern and modern philological systems, the reduction of Telugu to a ‘language’ under a new regime, and the political consequences of new regimes of language. 

Key terms and concepts: linguism, history, objectification, colonial linguistics, modernity, modern social imagination, Telugu, Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani, linguistic states of India.

Seminar A:  Parallel languages, Parallel cultures: Shared language and History in South Asia.

Readings: Mitchell, Lisa 2005.  'Parallel Languages, Parallel Cultures: Language as a new Foundation for the Reorganization of Knowledge and Practice.' Indian Economic and Social History Review 42(4): 445-67.

Exercise: Map out the linguistic states of India; compare these to the previous geographies of political organization in India.  Discuss Mitchell’s notion of ‘parallel languages, parallel cultures’ and how language becomes a new foundation for the organization of knowledge and practice.

Seminar B: The Command of Language and the Language of Command

Reading: Cohn, Bernard.  ‘The Command of Language and the Language of Command.’  Chapter Two, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 16-56.

Discussion: What were the previous modes of linguistic categorization in the India and how did they change under colonialism? How old is Hindi? What was the source of its production? What does Telugu tell about the relationship between cosmopolitan and vernacular languages? How does this account different from that of Bengali?


WEEK X: Persian & Persianate Vernaculars

The introduction of New Persian to South Asia; turn away from the cosmopolitan and towards local, vernacular languages in central Asia; the rise of new Persianate imperial formations, spread of Persian literary culture and the turn away from Arabic; intimations of the nation; early modernity

Seminar A: Indian Persian as a New Cosmopolitan Idiom

Readings: Amir Khusrow, Nine Spheres in India as Seen By Amir Khusrau in 1318 A.D. Required reading: 23-109; 120-124. The introduction (1-22) is recommended for background, as are the appendices. Only appendix E (“Khusrau's Vindication”) is required.

Exercise: Consider Amir Khusrow’s handling of Persian in its new Indian environment. What is Amir Khusrow’s attitude to India? Please come prepared to discuss specific passages (you may be called on to share your reaction to the text).

Seminar B: The Politics of Language and the Beginnings of Ethnic Consciousness: A Case Study of Chaghatay Turkic

Reading: Nawa’i, “Judgment of Two Languages [Muḥākamat al-lughatayn]” (c. 1499) trans. Robert Devereux, The Muslim World 54.4 (1964): 270-287 and (1965): 28-45.

Exercise: Close reading of Nawai in relation to prior discussions on vernacularity. Does Nawai mark a new beginning? Compare the poetics and politics of place in Amir Khusrow and Nawai.



WEEK XI: Politics, Aesthetics, Hegemony  

Verum/certum; rhetoric as disciplinary form; political philology; the politics of language; the role of the masses in shaping history; Roman hegemony; Marxism; comparative methods; hegemony

Seminar A: Vico and Marx

Reading: Selections from Vico, The New Science (1744) roughly 20pp; Marx on Vico.

Exercise: Trace Vico’s narrative of the Twelve Tablets and his “plebian philology.” Vico’s verum/certum distinction; the made versus the known.

Seminar B: Vico and Gramsci

Reading: Selections from Vico, The New Science (15pp); Gramsci on Vico and hegemony

Exercise: Consider Vico’s conception of the role of power and the interface of language inworld history. Compare this to Gramsci.


WEEK XII: Whose Cosmopolitics?

Seminar A: Ulrich Beck versus Bruno Latour

Reading: Ulrich Beck, “The Truth of Others: A Cosmopolitan Approach,” Common Knowledge, 10, 3: 430–49.

Bruno Latour, “Whose cosmos, which cosmopolitics? Comments on the peace terms of Ulrich Beck,” Common Knowledge 10.3 (2004): 450–62.

Exercise: Seminar divides into two to debate the merits and demerits of Beck’s argument and Latour’s response. What are Latour’s grounds for contesting Beck’s “peace terms”? Which argument is more persuasive? What is Latour’s alternative to Beck’s cosmopolitanism?

Seminar B: Cosmopolitanism versus Cosmopolitics

Reading: Isabelle Stengers, “The Curse of Tolerance,” in Cosmopolitics II, Volume 2 Trans. Robert Bononno (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) (=Book VII). 

Exercise: Compare Latour’s cosmopolitics with Stenger’s. How do their ideas appear influenced by each other? How do they diverge?